Editorials

Editorial: New finance formula is a first step for Kansas schools

A new Kansas school finance formula is getting lukewarm reviews. Work needs to be done on the plan, but lawmakers must keep their eyes on the bigger picture too, or outcomes in poorer districts won’t improve.
A new Kansas school finance formula is getting lukewarm reviews. Work needs to be done on the plan, but lawmakers must keep their eyes on the bigger picture too, or outcomes in poorer districts won’t improve. Kansas City Star

At long last, Kansas legislators now have a specific school funding blueprint to examine — a finance formula designed to address funding and fairness shortfalls identified by the state’s courts.

The formula is complicated. The relatively muted reaction to the proposal tells us two things: 1) Lawmakers are generally on the right track, and 2) they have a long way to go before the work is finished.

Many Kansans will focus on the bottom line. Under the plan, base state aid increases to $4,170 per pupil, up from the current $3,852. The increase reflects the realization that the governor and the Legislature have severely underfunded education over the past six years.

At the same time, school spending would increase a mere $75.6 million next fiscal year. That’s far less than is necessary to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to provide every student with a quality education.

Lawmakers will need to find additional funds. But they can’t stop there.

Districts are now poring over the plan, looking at who would get more money under the formula and who would get less. That endeavor misses the point.

The state’s Supreme Court has made the goal clear. Twenty-five percent of Kansas students, mostly from low-income neighborhoods, have substandard test scores in reading and math. That must be fixed.

Additional state funding for those schools is one obvious remedy. But improving outcomes in poorer districts will involve more than just hiring additional teachers and improving textbooks.

Students in poor and lower-income families face enormous financial challenges that make it hard to learn. Yet Kansas has refused, to date, to expand Medicaid. The state tightened welfare rules.

It has one of the highest sales taxes on food in the nation, further hurting the poor.

To this, we can now add proposed cuts from Washington.

In fiscal year 2016, Kansas received $8.1 million from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center program. The money supports before- and after-school learning and nutrition for kids, mostly from poor families. The help continues during the summer and school breaks.

President Donald Trump’s budget scraps the program. That would make it even harder to help kids learn.

Boosting school spending is an important part of improving outcomes in Kansas. But it isn’t the only challenge. Test scores won’t improve until the state addresses all the problems lower-income students must overcome.

Student performance in Kansas remains unsatisfactory. Kansas lawmakers must continue to pursue improvements with a workable school finance formula, but with attention to other important factors as well.

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